Prison Pen Pal Ministry Delivers Beacons of Light Behind Bars
By Adrienne Fawcett
He killed a man when he was 24. That was all Nan Caldwell knew about the prisoner she was assigned to exchange letters with when she joined the Prison Pen Pal Ministry at The Church of the Holy Spirit (CHS) in Lake Forest.
With each letter written and received, she’s learned there’s more to the prisoner than the gang-related murder he committed some 40 years ago — he’s curious, sorrowful and eager to connect spiritually with others. She has also learned a few things about gangs, the justice system, prison life and forgiveness.
Church of the Holy Spirit parishioner Lynne Atherton and pen pal Russell Mims get together upon the latter's release from prison. Mims served 13 years before he was eventually declared not guilty by a jury.
Caldwell’s experience is similar to that of other volunteers of the CHS Prison Pen Pal Ministry (PPPM), a program that provides Christian friendship through writing letters. For many inmates, it is their only contact with the world outside incarceration, and a regular reminder that God hasn’t forgotten them. As vital as the letters are to prisoners, the PPPM volunteers say the connections are real for them, too.
“I love this ministry, and it’s a lifeline for our pen pals” says CHS parishioner Ginny Primack. “But I do believe that we get back even more than we give. “
The PPPM was started more than 10 years ago by parishioner Margaret Mahan, who passed away in 2018. Jill Soderberg and Pam Seremak lovingly took over management of the ministry, which today includes more than three dozen dedicated volunteers. (It could use several more, as there’s a waiting list of prisoners looking to connect with pen pals).
The volunteers exchange letters with men and women in 15 correctional centers throughout Illinois, writing about their families, work, pets, church goings-on, sports, current events, spiritual matters and other topics.
The prisoners share what they’re experiencing in prison, what life was like at home, and their connections to others on the outside world. Some volunteers learn why their pen pal wound up behind bars; convictions include drug dealing, armed assault, murder and more. Other volunteers would rather not know.
“Some of our members embrace the philosophy of Bryan Stevenson, public interest lawyer and author of Just Mercy, who said, ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done,’” says Soderberg, who has been exchanging letters with a prisoner for nine years.
Prisoners find out about the PPPM through word of mouth, and they reach out to CHS simply by sending a letter asking for a pen pal. Those initial inquiries reveal a lot about an inmate’s situation and eagerness to participate.
“We assume that if they go to the effort to write the letter (and to pay for thepaper and stamp, which they have to buy at the prison commissary) then they will follow through with their pen pal,” says Soderberg.
Some pen pals exchange letters weekly, others monthly. The volunteers use pseudonyms and the church address, and they occasionally send simple gifts for birthdays and Christmas, such as books, magazines and money orders to support the cost of paper and stamps, following each prison’s regulations.
The ministry is not an advocacy group, but the experience of getting to know prisoners has increased the volunteers’ awareness of criminal justice issues, or rather “criminal injustice,” as parishioner Lynne Atherton describes it. Volunteers at times have advocated for their pen pals, for example by calling the prison to encourage medical care or by writing letters on their behalf. Atherton helped one pen pal find shelter and work after he was released, and she has stayed connected to him as any friend would do as he makes the difficult transition to life beyond incarceration.
Prisoners have said their pen pals provide hope and companionship in an otherwise lonely existence. One man said, "getting a letter was like getting a smile in an envelope."
Said another: “What you all do serves as a reminder that even when we are trapped in these cold gray walls, there is a beacon of light guiding us and letting us prisoners know God still sees us as his children and has called upon others - The Church of the Holy Spirit - to remind us we still exist and we are alive."